From time to time writers are asked to give endorsements for forthcoming books. These are called straplines in the trade. You know the sort of thing: ‘This out-swashes and out-buckles Bernard Cornwall’. Often the publishers make the request on behalf of a debut writer, because they have no previous reviews or straplines to cite.
I recently received one such request from a publisher who shall be nameless. I refuse when I’m busy or have misgivings about the book, but I wasn’t busy and you never know when you might need a publisher. I agree to look at the book, due to be published in July, but with certain provisos.
First, I undertook to endorse the book only if I was genuinely enthusiastic about it. Then I made a stipulation about length. This was a crime story and in my opinion a crime novel much over 300 pages is padded. So no 500-page door-stopper, please. I put books back on library and bookshop shelves if the font is too small or the print too faint, so I insisted on those two points. Finally, I admitted to a couple of prejudices. I dislike books with unconventional layouts and styles – dashes instead of inverted commas for direct speech for example, or characters with initials instead of names. I detest the rendering, except in one or two passages to give the flavour, of colloquial or ungrammatical speech phonetically – ‘I wos gunna tell ya later,’ for example.
The invitational email had been very polite so I replied similarly, apologising for all the reservations and hoping that they hadn’t given offence. In reply, the editor said that my conditions presented no problems. A proof copy was not available and a bound printout at 14 point would be posted, but I was assured that the finished product would not be in a small font or faint print. I was further assured that the novel was conventional in presentation.
No mention was made about characters with initials and phonetic rendering of slang, but I felt that enough of my points had been covered and I agreed to look at the book.
I’ve had some good straplines in my time; early on, Stephen Knight offered, ‘Peter Corris is undoubtedly a major figure in our time’. Later, I had from James Ellroy, the self-styled demon dog of American literature, ‘Corris’s portrayals of Australia stand out uniquely – forceful, hard-driven, compassionate’. It behoves a writer to do as he or she would be done by.
The transcript arrived promptly – 307 pages, neatly spiral bound. As judges of literary competitions and readers of publishers’ slush piles know, ten pages is usually enough to tell whether the rest is worth reading. This manuscript passed that test easily. It was a period police-procedural set in Melbourne – not an easy thing to pull off. There must be a balance between the evocation of time and place and the thrust of the narrative. Above all, the writer must avoid anachronism – an expression, a word inappropriate to the period, can kill off that essential ‘suspension of disbelief’. It didn’t happen; I read it from end to end, no skipping. I spotted a few literals and punctuation in some passages of dialogue needed attention. There was time to fix those things.
There was one more major problem, I thought. The manuscript had the same title as another very well known and highly regarded book. I pointed this out to the editor but she said not to worry. Then I happened to have a drink with my publisher, who remarked, quite out of the blue and without me mentioning writing the strapline, that the existing book with that title was going to be reissued as a tie-in to a forthcoming television version. I let the editor know. She thanked me profusely and changed the title. But whatever they call it now, the book will still appear with my wholly positive endorsement on the cover.